When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.
There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.
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I have more than once encountered the hyperbolic argument that moderating any discussion for a purpose other than filtering out criminal content is antithetical to the principles of critical thinking. (And yes, Godwin is often invoked.) This position is untenable in reality, for a discussion of higher-level concepts must be permitted to move beyond the rudimentary if any progress is to be made—we cannot, for example, ascertain the accuracy of group selection or punctuated equilibrium if creationist ideologues are permitted to control the conversation by derailing every biology discussion with charges that evolution is a “lie from hell.” We recognize that when we have a goal in mind, we have to at some point employ some kind of gatekeeping process through which non-constructive contributions are filtered out. This is the express purpose of peer-reviewed academic journals. Thus, when a person espouses such absolutist free speech rhetoric, what they are arguing against is not censorship but rather scientific progress—they are implicitly rejecting the notion of knowledge being cumulative.
Another often problematic meme is that there does not exist a right not to be offended. Stephen Fry encapsulates this concept well:
It’s now very common to hear people say, “I’m rather offended by that.” As it that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more than a whine. “I find that offensive.” It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. “I am offended by that.” Well, so fucking what.
On its face, this is quite true. There is no right not to be offended, but this platitude, when used as a rhetorical conversation-stopper, is nothing more than a red herring*. In the same sense that you do have a right to uncritically accept shallow falsehoods or commit logical fallacies, you also have a right to cause offense. However, if you wish to be a rationalist, you should not mindlessly exercise these rights, and you should especially not use them as a pretext for intellectual dishonesty.
When we consider Stephen Fry’s “so fucking what,” it is a mistake to apply it as a rote dismissal of all offense. This comment was, after all, delivered in the context of a religious person’s offense over having their religion criticized. Rather, we should interpret it more generally as a question—as urging us to ask, “yes, I see you’re offended, but why are you offended?” If we are to make intellectual progress, we must address the reasoning behind that offense—we must confront that which causes it.
Fundamentally, we can not allow ourselves to use this right to cause offense as a rationalization for committing an ad hominem fallacy, whereby a person’s arguments are dismissed simply because the person making them has expressed offense. If those arguments are unsound, let our responses address that unsoundness. Wasting time whining about the tone of those arguments, rather than their actual substance, is unproductive and insulting.
This defense of “there is no right not to be offended, so I should be able to say whatever I want however I want,” especially in response to perceived calls for “political correctness,” is all too often nothing more than the speaker’s attempt to deprive those who disagree with the content of that speech the right to criticize it. Free-speech-is-black-and-white zealots† take note: the right to offend and the right to commit logical fallacies are equivalent—you do, in fact, have these rights, but you do not have any sort of entitlement to respect for doing either, and when you regurgitate this platitude to dismiss an argument, you are simultaneously invoking both. The same right to free speech that allows you to do those things also allows your audience to criticize you for doing so.
It must be said that causing offense is sometimes necessary. In cases where rational discourse is impossible, causing offense to bring attention to discrimination may very well be the only tool that will work to spur an open, honest discussion of the problem. (What civil rights movement has ever been ushered in simply through dispassionate, academic pleas for equality? “Politeness” is only a part of a larger toolbox.) Does that mean being willfully offensive is the appropriate strategy in every case? Clearly not. It is therefore entirely insufficient to trot out the old canard of “you have no right not to be offended” as if this could somehow adequately be substituted for a rational argument‡. If we wish to have a productive conversation about serious issues, we must then be willing to discuss the degrees to which offense may be justified―for both the offense-causer and offense-taker.
The most obvious form of speech over which offense-taking is appropriate is that which causes harm. For example: lying to cause a public panic, libel and slander, inciting violence (you know, the illegal kinds of speech)―these things are obvious instances of things that we are under no obligation to tolerate. The negative real-world consequences they bring are easy to see, so there is no reason to offer these forms of speech either legal or normative protections.
But not every case of harmful speech will be immediately identifiable as such to a third-party. An apparently innocuous utterance can become a dire threat when delivered by an abuser to their victim—it is impossible to divorce connotational meaning from words, and not every connotation is created equal (this is why arguments like “cracker is as bad as other racist slurs” fail utterly). Seeking to artificially constrain ourselves to dictionary definitions, which are themselves inherently flawed§, is to fallaciously assume that the context in which speech occurs has no bearing on that speech’s meaning. Should we thus seek to erode the freedom of speech by forbidding (either legally or socially) anything that could conceivably carry harmful connotations? This too is untenable, for that would leave us with a lexicon containing literally zero words. Furthermore, the goal is not (and should not be) to sanitize all social interactions of any possible semblance of offensiveness.
We must accept that not all offense is equal in degree and justification. If you steal my car, I will be (among other things) offended. When a theist says “your nonbelief is offensive to me,” this offense is of an entirely different sort. The distinction is one of harm―by depriving me of my property, you have unambiguously hurt me, and that immediate deprivation also has future ramifications (I must spend additional time with the police, I may miss appointments or work, etc.). Compare this with the theist’s offense: does my nontheism cause harm, be it proximal or distal? No. Thus, the former offense is justified, and the latter is not.
This is the pivotal distinction when gauging offense: offense offered as a response to something which causes no harm is to be dismissed as irrational. While there may be no right not to be offended, there is a right not to be harmed, and offense stemming from harmful circumstances is to be respected and those harms discussed rationally. As with free speech, refusing to acknowledge this is the refusal to engage one’s critical faculties.
When people complain about “political correctness,” they almost uniformly do so without regard for the potential harm that some “politically incorrect” speech has. The reason it’s not socially acceptable to say racist things is that racism is harmful. When you see someone you think is urging “political correctness,” then, it is important to ascertain what they’re actually saying, especially since attempting to refute an argument you don’t understand is intellectually dishonest at best. For example, are they saying that something you don’t see as problematic is racist? Racist jokes, a common target of the so-called “PC-police,” serve to normalize discrimination, essentially perpetuating racism even if the speaker isn’t necessarily “a racist.” These things add up to compose a culture of everyday racism, so what may seem like “just a joke” to you may very well have real-world consequences. Sexist narratives “can promote the behavioral release of prejudice against women.” And this doesn’t just hold for racism and sexism, as “[b]y making light of the expression of prejudice, disparagement humor communicates a message of tacit approval or tolerance of discrimination against members of the targeted group.” Passive-aggressive microaggressions contribute to a toxic, unwelcoming atmosphere for members of the targeted minority group.
Even if there were no empirically measurable effect on discrimination as a result of saying these “politically incorrect” things, the perception they create in their audience||—namely that members of these groups are unwelcome, especially if they speak out against them—is itself a negative consequence. Is the offense that may arise as a result of these consequences truly equivalent to that of the theist whose scriptures are interpreted to justify a belief that atheism itself is a moral affront? No, and to treat these things as if they were is fallacious. We can dismiss mere offense, but offense arising as a result of harm is not mere offense. It is ultimately harm that campaigns for “political correctness” seek to ameliorate, not offense, and I can think of no person better suited to refute the vacuous suggestion that words are harmless and inoffensive than Stephen Fry himself:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will always hurt me.
Bones mend and become actually stronger in the very place they were broken and where they have knitted up; mental wounds can grind and ooze for decades and be re-opened by the quietest whisper.
It’s not really that complicated, is it?
“I am offended by atheism?” Too damn bad. “I am offended by racism?” Sorry assholes, that one sticks.
Miriam at Brute Reason has written an article titled The Supposed Virtue of Not Being Offended, and you should read it. In it, she references stereotype threat, which I simply cannot believe I didn’t think to include here:
Microaggressions can actually have pervasive negative effects on people, and research backs this up. They activate stereotype threat, which is a process in which people underperform based on stereotypes about their race or gender when those stereotypes are made salient for them.